Incidents of Violence Vulgar Display of Passion: Chapter 16

West Memphis Three

Given the facts that heavy metal fans listen to more music, memorize more lyrics (Reddick & Beresin, 2002, p. 52), and agree that self-destructive behavior can be manifested from the themes and messages of the music (Arnett, 1991a, p. 574), there is certainly cause for alarm when impressionable fans of heavy metal believe these media messages can be recreated and truly realized. Even though entertainment critics and scholarly researchers propound that heavy metal is “exaggerated, cartoonish buffoonery that pose[s] no danger to listeners,” there have unfortunately been a handful of metal fans to actually act upon the annulling messages they interpret from the music (Binder, 1993, p. 763). Those few incidents where mass media takes the blame of one person’s actions, mainly the lawsuits McCollum et Al. v. CBS, Inc., et. Al, Vance v. Judas Priest, Waller v. CBS, several violent episodes involving shock-rocker Marilyn Manson, as well as a scenario with a group of boys called the West Memphis Three, have been confronted by distressed family members, community leaders, and the artists themselves. While parents accuse metal bands of recording subliminal messages praising the anathemas of society and forcing their teens to commit inhumane acts, musicians defend their artistic merit, rights to Free Speech and illuminate the pre-existing afflicted mental state of the adolescents who commit such crimes.

One song that has manifested two court cases involving adolescent suicide is Ozzy Osbourne’s “Suicide Solution.” Stack et al. (1994) explain that in 1984, 19-year-old John McCollum committed suicide while repeatedly listening to both “Suicide Solution” and “Paranoid” from the album Blizzard of Ozz. McCollum’s parents filed civil lawsuits in California against the performer and the record label. In the resulting court battle, McCollum et al. v. CBS, Inc., et al., Osbourne’s record label, CBS records, contends that even though this performer may “revel in vices” or behave outlandishly at times, the song is actually a profound and personal “condemnation of alcohol abuse” for the performer that confronts the despondency of alcoholism (Stack et al., 1994, p. 18; Trzcinski, 1992, p. 19) and is not a declaration for self-destruction.

Timothy E. Moore (1996) reports that in December 1985, James Vance and Ray Belknap, two teenagers from Reno, Nevada both attempted suicide while listening to the British band Judas Priest’s song “Beyond the Realms of Death” from their 1978 album Stained Class. Belknap died instantly, and Vance lived severely injured for 3 more years only to die of drug complications. The boys’ parents’ sued Judas Priest in 1986 claiming that “Beyond the Realms of Death” was “a call to suicide” with the alleged drug related and satanic subliminal message of “Do It” that “contributed to their suicidal impulse” (Moore, 1996, p. 33). As Moore (1996) illustrates, both boys had a history of crime, drugs and failure at school, were abusive, alienated and depressed, and came from dysfunctional families. Belknap had previously attempted suicide and indicated to his sister that something might “happen” to him (p.33). Vance argued that the boys got messages to “Do It,” but this “conscious awareness” of these subliminals constitutes a contradiction of the definition of the very word ‘subliminal,’ so the plaintiffs “misattributed its… origin to their own inner motivation” (Moore, 1996, p. 35).

Moore (1996) continues by stating that the plaintiffs also had the burden of dealing with the “existing disposition” of previously suicidal clients as well as technological barriers regarding the subliminal message (p. 33). The subliminal “Do It” message was allegedly only listenable with audio processing and amplification machines, and the original 24-track audiotape that Stained Class was recorded on did not contain the “signal in question” (Moore, 1996, p. 35). Certainly, adolescents’ interpretations of lyrical messages are subjective and the meaning “depends not only what the lyric brings them, but also on what they bring to the lyric” (Gentile, 2003, p. 160). The case defense argued that the suicides were the final step in a long history of punitive behavior and ultimately, Judas Priest were acquitted. Just several months after the Judas Priest trial ended, a Georgia minister whose son shot himself while listening to Ozzy’s “Suicide Solution,” sued CBS records yet again, claiming that subliminal messages were involved. CBS records were acquitted for the second time involving the same song and same purported subliminal material in the 1991 court case Waller v. CBS (Moore, 1996).

Wensley Clarkson’s (1997) book, In the Name of Satan, provides in-depth perception into a Heavy Metal-related murder that occurred July 22, 1995 in Arroyo Grande, CA where Elyse Marie Pahler was drugged, strangled, stabbed, and left to die by three teenage boys who played Heavy Metal in a band called Hatred. The victim’s parents’ were convinced that the “violence-drenched lyrics” of Heavy Metal bands like Slayer provoked the youths to kill their daughter (p. 126). The Pahler’s acrimony toward heavy metal music was ignited and propelled because the boys used their band Hatred to sing about death, evil, Satan and “sacrificing virgins,” which is what they actualized by ritualistically killing Elyse (p. 14). As Clarkson (1997) explains, the abounding number of violent messages in mass media that do not “incite someone to commit violence against a specific person or group” will continue to be given First Amendment protection (p. 129). Basically, all violent, non-subliminal messages from any material ranging from the Bible to a gory horror movie to a Death metal album are all constitutionally protected. Pahler family attorney Allan Hutkin was prevented from continuing his work against Slayer and death metal due to inadequate progress and delayed litigations.

The case of the “West Memphis Three” is particularly interesting because the sentenced suspects are linked to their alleged crimes solely because they owned black Rock ‘n’ Roll t-shirts. Leveritt (2002) explains in detail how three teenagers, who authorities claimed to be cult leaders, were accused of kidnapping, sexually torturing, and murdering three younger boys in West Memphis, Arkansas in 1993. The suspects had previous psychiatric issues and had been accused by peers and adults to be occult Satanists because they “had long hair and wore concert T-shirts, with bands like Metallica, and Guns n’ Roses and Ozzy Osbourne” (Leveritt, 2002, p. 53). Three 8-year-old murder victims were “pulled – naked, pale, bound, and beaten – from a watery ditch in a patch of woods alongside two of America’s busiest highways” and the main implication is that gang activity and occult behavior suggested by Heavy Metal groups is directly responsible for it (Leveritt, 2002, p. 5). An expert investigator in this case claimed that he possessed “empirical evidence [that music like] Metallica… will lead people to commit crimes (Leveritt, 2002, p. 255). People witnessed a man covered in mud and blood near the scene of the crime less than one hour after the young boys went missing, but West Memphis police did not even enter the restaurant where he went in to wash himself. From the proposed evidence, even the parents of the victims are convinced that the suspects are innocent and should be released from jail. Many heavy metal artists also express their support of the release or reduction of the imposed life sentences. The case of the “West Memphis Three” has often been equated to the Salem witchcraft trials of the late 1600s, and Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley remain incarcerated to this day (Leveritt, 2002, p. 211). Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s film, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996) provides an in-depth documentation of this bizarre case of heavy metal music taking the blame for these horrific crimes (Johnson & Cloonan, 2008).

Most recently, however, gothic/industrial/shock-rocker Marilyn Manson has come under criticism for his controversial and suggestive lyrics and attitudes. Manson is attributed to the Columbine, Colorado school shootings in 1999 (the shooters were fans), which led members of the media society to more heavily consider a direct cause-effect relationship between “Heavy metal and murder-suicide” (Lacourse et al., 2001, p. 322).   Manson’s “fearful, frightening music” has caused Ray Kuntz of Burlington, North Dakota to speak out at a Congressional hearing on music violence on behalf of his 15-year-old son Richard who killed himself while listening to the song “The Reflecting God” from Manson’s CD, Antichrist Superstar (CGAUSS, 1997, p. 9). Kuntz believes that heavy metal promotes antisocial and harmful behavior through its glorification of inhumane “intolerance and hate” (CGAUSS, 1997, p. 9). Both Kuntz and his son read the lyrics and discussed the thematic content of Manson’s music together, but he failed to realize that his “son was holding a hand grenade and it was live and that it was going to go off in his mind” (CGAUSS, 1997, p. 14).

Two more of Richard Kuntz’s heavy metal-loving friends have been treated for suicide attempts, and yet another suicide occurred in the same community four months after Kuntz’ death when a young man drove his car off a cliff while coming home from a heavy metal concert.   Parents like Kuntz believe that due to advancement of mass media in culture, “there are no sanctuaries anymore” and the producers, writers and businesspeople in the music industry should do more to protect impressionable teens from such dangerous messages, even though “by their natures, corporations do not have consciences” (CGAUSS, 1997, p. 13 & 10). Weinstein (1991), however, believes that the fascination with Satanism, subliminal messages, and the overall denunciation of heavy metal music “resonates with the paranoid strain in American politics” and is “absurd” because symbols of Satan are found in many nonreligious cultural activities and artifacts ranging from Broadway plays to Mardi Gras festivals and Halloween celebrations (p. 259-260). The use of deviltry in heavy metal is thus a,

“Criticism of the phony heaven of respectable society where no one boogies and everyone goes to ice cream socials. It is not a countertheology. Metal lyrics do not attack God and certainly do not malign Jesus. They just appeal to the devil as a principle of chaos.” (Weinstein, 1991, p. 260)

Several other incidents of blaming heavy metal for criminal activity have been documented, including a murder/robbery in Oregon in 1994 that cited the bands Cannibal Corpse and Decide as inspiration for the crime, and a 2006 school shooting at Montreal’s Dawson College that was caused by a student “who was drinking whisky and listening to heavy metal” (Johnson & Cloonan, 2008, p. 74). Weinstein (1991) illuminates that, “associating particular cases of suicide with heavy metal makes all heavy metal fans appear to be suicidal,” however, “for each heavy metal fan who commits suicide there are hundreds who feel that the music actually saved them from killing themselves” (p. 253). Walser (1993) even notes that one fan wrote a letter of appreciation to Metallica because he “had decided not to kill himself after hearing their song about suicide, “Fade To Black” (p. 150). Regardless of the extreme misinterpretations, illogic, and stereotyping that detractors cast down about violence, Satanism, and the general negativity in the lives of metal fans, Arnett (1996) and Bashe (1985) emphasize that heavy metal can actually serve as an alternative to physical violence because listeners release their anger through their involvement with the music.


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